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Arizona-USC preview: Close games have been the norm recently

Marquis Flowers

Marquis Flowers celebrates after an interception vs. USC last season. Photo by Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, a fantastic storyteller, has told this one many times in the past week:

Last year, as the Wildcats prepared to play USC, he asked his players how many were recruited by the Trojans.

“Three of them raised their hands,” Rodriguez said, “and two of them were lying.”

And you know what? The recruiting chasm hasn’t mattered.

The past six meetings between Arizona and USC have been decided by a touchdown or less, with the Cats winning two of them, including last season’s 39-36 victory that wasn’t decided until the football hit the end zone turf after receiver Marqise Lee flirted with a Hail Mary catch.

The recruiting scoreboard is much more lopsided.

USC has signed 17 five-star recruits and 56 four-star recruits in the past five classes, as rated by Rivals.com.

Arizona has signed no five-star recruits and 12 four-star recruits.

One of those former four-star prospects is senior linebacker Marquis Flowers, the centerpiece of Mike Stoops’ 2010 class. Flowers is one of the Wildcats who was offered a scholarship by USC (Michigan, coached by Rodriguez at the time, also did so). Arizona backup quarterback Jesse Scroggins actually spent a couple seasons at USC before spending fall of 2012 at a junior college.

Arizona running back Ka’Deem Carey, the nation’s leading rusher in 2012, received recruiting interest from USC, but not a scholarship offer.

“I liked it over there,” he said, “but they’re too full of themselves.”

USC has been humbled lately, losing seven of its past 11 games with all those blue-chippers, which is why coach Lane Kiffin is no longer around and free to appear as a guest on ESPN’s College Football GameDay on Saturday. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron is the interim head coach with the more fun, more intense personality.

That likely doesn’t translate to good news for Arizona.

“I think our challenge is going to be more difficult because they’re going to play extremely fired up, loose, relaxed, with a chip on their shoulder and all those kind of things,” Rodriguez said. “I think we’re going to get their very best shot.”

Energized or not, USC’s passing game isn’t likely to land knockout punches. Lee is unlikely to play because of a knee sprain. USC, which has been searching for a third receiver in the rotation, now has to find a No. 2 behind Nelson Agholor.

USC's Cody Kessler beat out Max Wittek for the starting quarterback job. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

USC’s Cody Kessler beat out Max Wittek for the starting quarterback job. Photo by Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler directs the second-worst passing attack in the Pac-12 (189.8), saved only by Arizona, which lags far behind at 111.2.

Kessler (6-1, 215) has completed 66 of 104 passes for 832 yards, with six touchdowns and four interceptions.

“He’s kind of a shorter guy who holds the ball too long,” said Arizona nose tackle Tevin Hood. “Personally, I think he can’t see over the line so he makes some bonehead throws.”

These teams have combined for 164 points and 2,342 yards — 1,200 for USC — in the past two meetings. But Matt Barkley and Robert Woods are gone for USC, and Lee is hurt. Arizona no longer has Nick Foles or Matt Scott at quarterback. Talent like Juron Criner and Austin Hill is not roaming at receiver.

Expect something less pyrotechnic at the Los Angeles Coliseum tonight.

Arizona’s passing game, with quarterback B.J. Denker throwing to inexperienced receivers, will have to be at max efficiency to sniff scoring chances against a USC defense that is “as talented as any in our league,” Rodriguez said.

“Every guy on their front four is going to be playing on Sundays,” he said.

“They may not be as deep as they want to be, but when I look out there, I see 11 dudes who can go.”

Yep. The Trojans, as always, pass the eye test, even when failing the scoreboard exam. As it has been for much of Arizona’s 35 years in the conference, USC has the horses and the Cats have a chip on their shoulders.

Lately, though, it’s been hard to tell the teams apart.

“They’re athletic, they’re physical, they’re big. They’re ‘SC,” Carey said. “We have to play our football, go fast and just hit them in the mouth early.”

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